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Opinion: An abhorrent trail of abuse

The Phnom Penh Post - January 24, 2012. "At least nine Cambodian women died last year while performing domestic work in Malaysia. And the grim reality is that, without strong action by the Cambodian and Malaysian governments to rein in exploitative recruitment and employment practices, more lives will be lost in 2012."

These women did not die solely because of the way they were treated by their Malaysian employers. Their deaths are also linked to government failures: weak regulations, corrupt officials and short-sighted migration policies.

For two years, I called a village in Kampot province my home. There, I saw at first hand the challenges that pressure Cambodian women and girls to work abroad.

Extreme poverty and few local jobs are among the factors that make these women—most of whom have never even travelled to Phnom Penh—take on the risks of migration.

Living with a Cambodian host family helped me understand the binding filial devotion that would  convince a young woman to migrate to support her loved ones—risking her life far from home to send her daughter to school, or to pay for her grandfather’s medical expenses.

Last year, Nhon Yanna, a 16-year-old girl in Pursat province, told my colleagues at Human Rights Watch: “My mother is sick and can’t work.

I wanted to go to Malaysia and earn money to repay my mother’s debt and build a house for my family.”

Although Cambodian women like my host mother are woven tightly into the fabric of their communities, tens of thousands of women and girls like Nhon Yanna have left their villages behind to become domestic workers in Malaysia, at great personal risk.

A Human Rights Watch report, They Deceived Us at Every Step, documents how these women  are often betrayed from the very beginning of the recruitment process.

Labour agents enter their villages painting rosy pictures of easy work abroad. These recruiters offer illegal, up-front cash incentives to prospective workers that indebt these women and their families to ensure they do not back out of their contracts.

Recruiters fail to mention the risk of abuse by Malaysian employers, including unpaid wages, no rest days, physical brutality and, sometimes, starvation and rape.

Facing abuse even before they are sent to Malaysia, recruited workers are typically confined in Phnom Penh training centres for months without adequate food and medical care.

A prospective domestic worker, Ngoun Re, told Human Rights Watch: “The food [in the training centre] wasn’t enough . . . many people fell sick. Women were so weak that they couldn’t even walk.”



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